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A look back


In 1989, I lost my job. I’d gone to grad school (S.F. State) to get my M.A. in Educational Technology, a weird hybrid of a major that the school designed because they understood that computers were going to be important, but they didn’t know which department should investigate their uses. So they stuck it in education. It was a silly major, and I never used a single thing I learned (BASIC?); but I did work on campus in the Career Center, so I learned a thing or two about college career counseling, and when it came time to get my first post-graduate job, it was as the director of the career planning and placement center at California College of Arts & Crafts (now California College of the Arts), here in Oakland.

As jobs go, it was a disaster. I struggled for the better part of three years to make it work, but ran into academic politics of the worst kind. I was hopeless at the backstabbing and maneuvering it takes to survive campus in-struggles, with the result that the school’s personnel director called me into her office one day and told me it was all over. Everything I’d gone to school for, and worked so hard to achieve, went down the toilet.

I was in shock. Fired from my first job! I thought I’d never recover from the blow. Went home, slept, drank, lost myself in a whirlwind of indulgence. I had no money, a mortgage and car payments to pay, the whole dreary mess. Needed a new job asap. But what? That’s when I told myself, “Self, you can’t go through another debacle. It’s pretty obvious you’re not cut out to be a suit-and-tie wearing, briefcase-toting bureaucrat. You’re a creative, fanciful, non-conforming independent sort, and you need to do something that allows you to express that part of yourself.”

As a career counselor, I’d often told my students, “When it comes to choosing a job, don’t just pick something you think will earn you money. You’re going to be working for the next 30, 40 years, and studies tell us that 70% of Americans hate their jobs. Do you really want to be doing something you hate until you’re 65? So find your passion, and get a job doing something you love.”

I asked myself, What do I love? Two things: writing and wine. I practically came out of my mother’s womb wanting to write. I can distinctly remember being 3 years old and doodling on pieces of paper, pretending I was writing in script. I couldn’t wait to write. I was an early, avid reader and an early, avid writer. I was writing poems and short stories by ten. So I knew I wanted to do something involving writing.

And I loved wine. Fell head over heels in love with it in the late Seventies. Went off the edge, around the bend, out of my mind in the pursuit of wine knowledge, way beyond what any normal person should do. So in that awful aftermath of getting fired, I decided to put the two things I loved together. Writing + wine = wine writer.

Fine, but how to make it happen? I did a lot of visualising (a method of thought projection and imagination that was popular in those days). I established a resumé by writing for our local free newsweekly, the East Bay Express, and for the Oakland Tribune as a stringer. I quickly developed writing skills: how to construct a story, come up with a strong lead, check facts, meet deadlines and word counts, work with editors. And then it was time to find an actual wine writing job. I think I’ve previously described here on my blog how I pestered Jim Gordon, at Wine Spectator, so mercilessly that he finally broke down and gave me an assignment. And the rest, as they say, is history.

If there are lessons to be learned by my experience — and I think there are — it’s that younger writers who want to make it in wine writing should do these things:

1. educate yourself as thoroughly as possible in wine.
2. work constantly on your writing skills.
3. believe in your dream.

Of course, things are a lot different now than they were when I started. Back in 1989, few people wanted to be wine writers, so the field was wide open. Today, everybody seems to want to be a wine writer. Another thing that’s different is the advent of the Internet. In 1989, you could only be a wine writer if somebody hired you to be one, because only publishers controlled the press. Today, anybody can blog. Self-publishing is an advantage, but it’s also a liability, because the very ease of digital publishing means that young wannabe wine writers might not discipline themselves with the severity needed to mold an unformed passion into honed talent. It’s always taken talent to make it as a wine writer. Still does.

  1. Takes talent to make it in almost any area – a fact made even more acute by the Internet, where collectively it seems we can smell a fake from a very, very long way away.

    Fortunately for us, Steve, you’ve got talent! 🙂

  2. Steve,

    Great post. It highlights one other problem from the internet and the ease of self-publishing that we see repeatedly, resistance to editing. For every good writer that we work with, we get two more who say “you’re stealing my voice” when we insist on things like nounsin sentences. As a young writer, you learned to create a strong lead, check your facts, and work with editors. You also learned, I assume, that you could have your own “voice” within the voice of the publication.

    It takes talent to make it as a wine writer. It also takes the ability to work with and learn from editors. Finally, it takes some humility that self-publication does not naturally provide, the understanding that your work can be better with the help of others.

  3. “I’d gone to grad school (S.F. State) to get my M.A. in Educational Technology, a weird hybrid of a major that the school designed because they understood that computers were going to be important, but they didn’t know which department should investigate their uses. So they stuck it in education. It was a silly major, and I never used a single thing I learned..”

    This would be a great topic for an article, although not wine related. Their logic, and yours, was solid but it’s so hard to gear academic learning to a rapidly transforming market. Many college students face the same issues today.

  4. David H., nouns in sentences? What’s next, verbs? You gotta be kidding. What are you, the grammar police?

  5. Great story, Steve, as always.

    And, cream always does rise to the top.

    I find myself patiently waiting, these days.

    For what?

    It has to do with fact checking in blog writings, as you’ve noted for being an important writing habit.

    Pre-Web 2.0, I was working with national writers of power and influence to have them understand, there is now only one acceptable spelling of Petite Sirah, and that is with an “i.”

    Yes, the few older brands haven’t changed their labels in years might have a “y” on them (Stags’ Leap – but that’s now changing; JC Cellars, that too will eventually change, too). A law was enacted (a few years ago) to get rid of the “y” for easy of consumers to understand the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah.

    I almost had it nailed, and along came Web 2.0.

    You know what’s most disturbing to me?

    These new wine writers have the darn bottles right in their hands, and they don’t write the name of the wine right from the bottle. How simple is that? And yet – thanks to one of my PS I Love You members telling me to do this – my daily Google alert for “Petite Syrah” delivers two to three instances every day from some under developed blogger.

    I only use this for an example, because I’ve seen it every single day of my life for the last five years.

    That kind of carelessness is also contributing to the blind leading the blind perpetuating this misspelling, so back to where I started…

    I wait patiently, learning and knowing who the cream of the crop is… and who isn’t… yet. (I have hope.)

    Yup… I’m the Petite Sirah police, like an English teacher who wants her students to say, “It is I,” not… I can’t even say it….


  6. Bill Smart says:

    Steve, I was just surfing around on Wine and stumbled across this post. I thought I’d share it given how closely linked your post is.

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